The people behind the scenes of Solar Plans LLC and solarplans.com:

We, Cath and Karlis, built our own home beginning in the early 1980's. Our objective was to see how self sustaining we could be, not only for environmental reasons but also for economics. The economics definitely were a driving force, since we chose to build with our cash flow. This meant we only could put about $5000 a year into our home. But, hey we moved in after the first year, and now have enjoyed a very comfortable earth sheltered passive solar home for over 19 years without a mortgage! (click here to get the scoop on our home environment).

 Since I have decided to build this site, here is the nitty gritty on me to give you some confidence in the information you will find!

My schooling includes a degree in Civil Engineering from WPI.

Self employed as a passive solar home designer and building contractor , now for nearly 28 years.

Involved with the start up a non-profit recycling center and a neighborhood planning association.

Community activist for sustainability, open space and non-motorized pathways.

Active in solar organizations (American Solar Energy Society)

Past Chairperson of The New Mexico Solar Energy Association (NMSEA)

And for lots of fun taught skiing and coached ski racers for nearly ten years . (check out Taos Ski Valley!)

With our experience as individuals, within the community, the state and the USA we see the need to expand the knowledge a few people have about earth stewardship and living sustainably to the general public as QUICKLY AS POSSIBLE! Daily, all of us hear of environmental issues that are a result of our processes and system designs geared toward an old idiom of economic growth. The push for rapid economic expansion has occurred with a total irreverence of the limited resources for the large human population that continues to grow. The sad part is much of the Third World ...who ever came up with that term? ... is striving to live the consumptive lifestyle we all are a part of here in the States. Please enjoy learning from the information we are providing on this site and the links we have connected you to and please bookmark us for future learning experiences as this site grows. Join us in moving towards a SOLAR UTOPIA!
Karlis

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solar architecture

the ecological home

green building materials

smart site planning

community planning

links to related sites

professional consulting

 

 

 

EMAIL US

     
 

OUR SITE

 

Looking uphill to south side of home

earth sheltered north wall

Looking downhill from north of home

 The property is all on a hill sloping down to the south. Pinon and Juniper trees dot the landscape of our semi-arid location in northern New Mexico. We are 7800 ft. above sea level and experience outdoor temperatures from -15ºF to 95ºF. Annual degree-days are approximately 7200. Annual rainfall in our area is 12 to 15 inches a year, and snowfall of about 30" at our property (up to 400 inches in the mountains, just 5 miles up the road!). We experience frost from Labor Day to Memorial Day, so the growing season is very short here.

Nearly 20 years ago we chose this site primarily for its location to work, play and scenery. With observations over the years we have learned of the microclimate benefits of this location. The south sloping terrain melts snow quickly, the earth stays warmer and radiates that warmth at night up the hillside in winter. The valley floor 100 ft. below experiences winter night time temperatures 10ºF colder than our site regularly. The house is buried into the natural slope on the north and sheltered on the west by a higher ridge line and the corresponding trees. The east and west walls of the house are buried partially as the terrain drops from approximately 8 ft. above floor level to floor level along the south wall.

We walk into our house site from a car park approximately 100 feet to the west. This path through the trees is approximately 6 feet wide, and virtually no disturbance to the natural environment took place beyond a 4 foot zone around the house and patio, other than garden and evaporation-transpiration growing bed. All materials for the house were hand carried in from the parking area which had been developed by a previous landowner. A small backhoe to excavate the house pad and cistern holes was the only machine impacting this area.

 

 

PASSIVE SOLAR USE

south glass windows
A multitude of passive solar design techniques are incorporated: direct gain windows, clerestory and Trombe walls. All windows are thermopane glass installed vertically. The Trombe walls are glazed with no iron diffuse single pane glass (like you see on flat plate hot water collectors). The Trombe walls are 8" thick concrete block without vents. The direct gain provides plenty of daytime solar heat and the unvented Trombe walls (indirect gain) radiate their warmth through the night and even into the next cloudy day. The clerestory uses a double layer polycarbonate (Macrolux or Lexan typical product names). The clerestory is sloped at 45º because it also provides year round solar gain to a batch solar hot water system. A small air tight wood stove provides back up, usually needed only after a very cloudy cold day. We use about one quarter of a cord of wood a year -negligable!
 

 

MATERIALS

brick on sand

Because the house is tucked into the hill, we chose to use concrete block, steel reinforced and concrete grouted as retaining structural walls. 3 inches of rigid foam insulation on the exterior (polyisocyanurate) establishes an R-24± overall wall insulation value and great thermal mass on the interior. Below grade the rigid insulation changes to extruded polystryene over waterproofing of 2 layers 6 mil plastic over Thoroseal®, a cementatious sealer. We built the original one bedroom house over several years in the early 1980's. This technique was based on Univ. of Minnesota's Underground Space Center publications. Recently we completed an addition to the original 850 sq. ft. home for a growing greenhouse, storage, and office/bedroom. The walls of the addition are of RASTRA®, a recycled stryofoam ICF system. We chose this because of the recycled insulation, the earth retaining structural ability, and the ease of waterproofing and plastering to the surface with no stucco netting needed. This ICF also uses less concrete to fill than most any ICF's on the market today.

The floors are brick on sand. This adds thermal mass to the interior without concrete.

In the original home the few interior walls are also concrete block. In the addition an interior wall separating the growing greenhouse from other rooms is built of compressed adobe bricks. These bricks have very low embodied energy because they are made on site using local adobe clay/sand dirt and there is no water in the process. The gas fired machine compresses the dirt producing over 1500 bricks a day. The bricks are dry stacked immediately, so there is virtually no waste in the manufacturing or building process.

All ceiling timbers, ceiling tongue and groove, window frames are locally harvested trees. The ceiling in the addition is recycled cedar siding salvaged from a commercial remodel less than 10 miles away. Much of the trimwork is recycled redwood from an old deck whose joists rotted away. A portion of the ceiling in the greenhouse is corrugated steel (high recycle content).

The roofing is also steel.

The result is a high mass home to moderate temperature swings naturally and a home with a high percentage of recycled material content.

 

 

SOLAR HOT WATER

batch solar DHW

solar hot water batch

 Our domestic needs for hot water are served by a passive batch solar collector. Under the clerestory, as mentioned above, is a black 30 gallon glass lined tank within a carpenter built insulated box. The south sloping side of the box has a single pane glass cover to help retain the heat and keep dust off of the tank. The inside of the box is foil faced to reflect more sunlight back at the tank.

The beauty of this system is it requires no pumps, no antifreeze, no controllers, and it is freeze proof by being within the hottest part of the house. As a faucet is opened the hot water is pushed out by the replacing cold water. We typically have temperatures ranging from 90ºF to 120ºF in coldest part of winter, and in spring and fall have hit temperatures in excess of 150ºF.

A second application provides radiant floor heating in the greenhouse and new bedroom . Two flat plate 4x10 collectors circulate solar heated antifreeze mix via a PV direct powered DC pump directly into floor tubing. The PV module and flat plate collectors are mounted vertically to self regulate this system for winter time gain only.

 

 SOLAR ELECTRICITY

photovoltaic array
The utility lines passed the property line, and in the early 1980's we did not see a stand alone photovoltaic (PV) system as feasible especially with an initial building budget of approximately $5000 (yes, we did move in Phase 1 with this small amount of money invested and all of our own sweat). We did set up a small PV system to complement the utility grid. Our house is wired for 12VDC powered by PV independantly of 120VAC from the utility power. The refrigerator is our primary load on the utility (70-100KWH per month is our utility consumption - about $17-20). Radio, water pumping from the cistern and half of the lights are on the PV system (110 watt array). Direct PV is also used for a greenhouse fan, and a solar radiant floor circulating pump. These are separate modules wired directly to the load, which work beautifully to self regulate; the fan or pump produces more when the sun is producing the most heat to move. Several motion sensor PV lights are also in use outdoors.
 

 

WATER

rain catchment cistern

 Rain brings smiles to our faces since this is our sole source of water. We chose to not tap into the groundwater initially because of the cost of drilling a well to 400 or more feet. Having now lived with rainwater only since 1983 we find it to be the only choice!

Our daily use for showering, brushing teeth, flushing a pee only toilet, drinking, cooking and washing is about 20gpd for two people. For many years we harvested rainwater off of only about 450 sq. ft. of roof and never were without water. The math works out to 620 gallons per inch of rain per 1000 sq.ft. of roof area. With the snowmelt from our south oriented roof and the average annual rainfall we now capture over 20,000 gallons a year. This averages out to over 55 GPD. We use the balance for greenhouse plants and a drip irrigation system along the entry walk.

The beauty of rainwater is that it is naturally soft and easy to filter. Because of the softness you use less soap for cleaning and the plumbing and hot water systems do not develop calcium related problems. Well water often adds sediment to a system which is far more difficult to filter out than the fine dust that may be washed off a roof after a dry spell.

Storage just below ground keeps the water cold enough to prevent bacterial growth. Pumping is an easy chore for a DC pump when the lift from a cistern is less than 10 feet. Far less energy is consumed when compared with a deep well pump. Our first storage tank is galvanized steel (1983 - potable H20 plastic tanks were not prevalent), and the new additional ones are polyethylene. I have found that 4 times the roof area (changing the sq.ft. units into gallons) is a good basis for determining storage size.

 

 

WASTEWATER

dry composting toilet

 The key to living with rainwater is to reduce the amount used, therefore there will also be less wastewater. Our house uses composting toilets, so there is no water use for human waste. We do have a small RV type of toilet for peeing into.

All our drains feed into a grease trap filter and an evaporation-transpiration bed. The system is self-contained, so there is no leaching into the ground. Simply described a liner filled with loose pumice (volcanic white rock) about 12" -18" deep with 12" of topsoil above is the evaporation-transpiration bed. Flowering plants and evaporation take up the 20 GPD input. The grease trap is a container at the end of the wasteline with straw on top of loose pumice. The straw captures all the slime from soaps and skin oils. The straw is changed out periodically by adding it to the food compost /worm bin.

 

 

COMPOSTING

composting
 Food scraps are composted in a 4 x 4 bin alive with worms, straw and other cuttings. The composting toilet only needs to be emptied once every couple of years. Our toilet is a home built version with some similarities to a Clivus Multrum®. No manufactured toilets really address parasites or viruses that may still exist in the composted remains. When we empty the composting chamber we place that material into a steel drum tumbler that is a dark color and leave the compost in their for another two years to be cooked with solar heat killing any parasites that may still exist. The next time we have to empty the composting toilet is when we empty this sterile compost to a flowering garden bed. This second stage "batch" also prevents new human waste and urine from adding parasites or viruses as it does in the original composting chamber.

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